Calvary hits 50-year caretaker milestone

Mankato Free Press article on Jerry Miller’s retirement.

Years are a big deal at a cemetery. You can’t glance in any direction without seeing dates carved or etched onto stones.

But while there’s a “start” date and an “end” date, the monuments cannot attest to what’s really important — what happened in-between.

This month — February 2023 — we come to a historic date of sorts. Fifty years ago, Jerome “Jerry” Miller took over as caretaker for Calvary from the retiring caretaker John Udelhofen. John had been at the helm for over 20 years.

“I’ll never forget that day as long as I live,” said Jerry’s son and current caretaker Terry Miller. “I was going to elementary school at Saints Peter and Paul. I came home and Mom told me that Dad had gotten a new job. I asked her what job?”

“Well, he’s going to run Calvary Cemetery,” said Sheila Miller.

“I thought, ‘How embarrassing!'” Terry remembered, laughing.

That’s kind of ironic considering Terry has been caretaker himself now for almost 28 years.

Of course, Terry started out by helping his Dad. The set up was starkly primitive then.

“There was no phone, an old wood stove and an outhouse. In cold weather Dad would light a fire in the morning,” Terry said.

There was also a Model A Ford pickup and an ancient tractor. Jerry’s “office” was a chair in the corner of the old shack by a 50-gallon oil drum and the wood stove. The work was backbreaking.

Jerry Miller and John Udelhofen with the Model A pickup

Primitive or not, Jerry made the job a success. He tackled the hard work, often excavating sites with only a shovel. He kept deadlines and was thoroughly reliable. He also had a talent for grief support. He knew what to say and when to say it, often easing sorrowing family members. And as the years wore on, Terry found himself helping more and more.

Although Terry didn’t realize it at the time, it gradually became clear that the “embarrassing job” was really a vocation that involved planning, finance, leadership and a considerable quota of emotional intelligence.

Jerry had a talent for finding ways to make things work.

“I remember Dad paying me out of his own pocket,” Terry said.

Jerry also had a sense of humor that attracted good help in spite of the hard work and sometimes very unpleasant weather.

Terry remembers asking his Dad why Terry’s nickname, “RIP”, was carved on so many headstones. (“RIP” stands for “Rest in Peace.”)

“To this day, I’m not sure why Dad gave me that nickname…I always assumed it was made up from a short version of my name…Terry…Ter…then Rip,” he said.

As the years went on, Terry spent summers working at the cemetery. When he finished college and went into the working world, he still kept involved at Calvary, working here and there to help out.

When Jerry retired, the board asked Terry if he wanted the job. It was a smart move on their part. Terry knew everything about the cemetery already, had all the job skills and, in reality, that been on an apprenticeship since he was in grade school.

Jerry Miller

Coincidentally Terry brother, Tom, was already vocationally attached to Calvary. From a base interest in art and sculpture, Tom’s time at the cemetery led him to put two and two together, connecting sculpture and monument fabrication. He built a solid business providing monuments for Calvary families. Tom’s innate talent, fair pricing and customer service created a virtual monopoly of lifetime projects.

It’s hard to imagine what Calvary would be like without the Miller Family, the leadership from the board and the continual positive feedback and support from Calvary families. It’s also amazing to think of all the people the Millers have laid to rest, including some of their own. Jerry and Sheila’s stone is not far from the cemetery office. Terry sees it every day.

“It’s all about the people,” Terry said. “Dad knew that. I think that’s why everything worked out so well.”

Calvary is keeping roads clear

Our recent heavy snowfalls have clogged streets throughout the area, and Calvary Cemetery’s internal roadways have been no exception, but the cemetery staff strives to keep the roads clear during open hours — basically daylight hours every day.

Fortunately, Calvary has great community support — and that really helped after the latest deluge of snow.

“I’d like to give a big thanks to Jake Koberoski for widening the roads from the recent heavy snowfall,” said Terry Miller.

Terry confirmed that access to the cemetery is back to “winter normal.”

Cemeteries are history in landscaping

Cemeteries are history in landscaping.

While Calvary Cemetery seems well seasoned to those in Mankato, its monuments and inhabitants represent a tiny blink in the span of human history.

Caretaker Terry Miller took some time earlier in 2022 to visit Boston, Massachusetts and was excited to visit some of the oldest Christian cemeteries in the country.

“It’s true, we were there for the hockey,” Terry confessed, referring to the Minnesota State Mavericks appearing at the Frozen Four. “But I just had to break away and get to some of these fantastic places.”

Boston’s oldest cemetery is Kings Chapel Burying Ground in the downtown area, and it dates back to 1630, the year that Boston was established. That’s two hundred and fifty some years older than Calvary and stretches well back before the founding of the United States. Kings Chapel’s most famous inhabitant is John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts.

An excerpt from a Boston area cemetery tourist brochure.

Terry was able to visit the Granary Burying Ground and nearby Kings Chapel Burying Ground, two of the most prominent historic cemeteries in the United States. Kings Chapel is the oldest in the country, founded in 1630. It is the final resting place of the first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, along with William Dawes (Paul Revere’s compatriot on his famous nocturnal ride to Lexington) and Hezekiah Usher, the colonies’ first publisher and printer.

The nearby Granary was established in 1670 to help alleviate crowding at Kings Chapel. It holds an estimated 5,000 remains, including thousands of Boston’s most notable figures. Three signers of the Declaration of Independence are there: John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Robert Treat Paine. Also there is the grave of Paul Revere. A central obelisk marks the graves of Ben Franklin’s parents.

Headstone for the grave of Boston Tea Party participant, Josiah Snelling.

“It was so cool to visit these places, so old and with so much history,” said Terry. “It was a whirlwind part of the visit but I’m really glad I was able to take the time.”

Fall project gives chapel a sharper look

It’s December. Cold air, leaden gray skies and a thin bit of snow have dulled the summer sunlit greens and blue skies in Mankato. But while the summer turned to early fall in September, the Calvary Chapel was getting some significant updates.

Caretaker Terry Miller, Jake Winch and Mike Miller painted the steeple peak to give the finishing touches to a re-shingled roof and some stone tuckpointing. Given the height and steepness of the roof, that might be considered a daunting task. But the small crew had the equipment and the moxie to treat it like any other task.

Along with all the miscellaneous equipment involved, the crew used a boom lift. Jake worked as the lift operator, giving Terry and Mike easier access to the impossibly steep rooflines.

“We actually had a great time!” said Terry. “The views were incredible.”

Terry was especially pleased with the visual appeal of the new black shingles. “I thought it was a little risky, but once they were up it was really a sharp look.”

Restoring something that historic also gives a person a special sense of satisfaction, he added.

Left to right: Jake Winch, Mike Miller and Terry Miller
New shingles

Now taking orders for Christmas wreaths

It’s hard to think about the holidays without remembering Christmas past and departed loved ones.

Christmas Wreath

If you’d like to decorate a loved one’s grave with some holiday color, Calvary Cemetery is now taking orders for Christmas wreaths. Ordered wreaths will be placed on graves the week of Thanksgiving and will be removed after New Year’s Day (weather permitting).

These 25-inch wreaths are Balsam Fir and feature a red bow with white-tipped pinecones.

To order your wreath for $30, call Terry Miller at 507.995.1010.

All Souls Day Mass on November 2nd

Father Paul
Father Paul

Calvary Cemetery Chapel will be the site for a special All Souls Day Mass to be held on Wednesday, November 2nd at 9:30 a.m.

Father Paul van de Crommert of North Mankato’s Holy Rosary Catholic Church will be the celebrant. Father Paul is also actively serving on the cemetery’s board of directors.

Confused about All Souls Day, All Saints Day and Halloween?

The Catholic Church celebrates All Saints Day, or All Hallows, on the first day of November each year. Therefore the last day of October is All Hallows Eve, or Halloween (a contraction of “All Hallows Evening). November 2nd is All Souls Day. According to Catholic Online (, here is the difference in the celebrations:

In Western Christian theology, the day [All Saints Day] commemorates all those who have attained the beatific vision in Heaven. It is a national holiday in many historically Catholic countries. In the Roman Catholic Church, the next day, All Souls’ Day, specifically commemorates the departed faithful who have not yet been purified and reached heaven. Catholics celebrate All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day in the fundamental belief that there is a prayerful spiritual communion between those in the state of grace who have died and are either being purified in purgatory or are in heaven (the ‘church penitent’ and the ‘church triumphant’, respectively), and the ‘church militant’ who are the living. Other Christian traditions define, remember and respond to the saints in different ways.

Halloween is not a religious celebration in the Catholic Church. It is a popular celebration revolving around the theme of using humor to confront the power of death.

Tom Miller’s life is etched in stone

A cemetery without monuments would be like a book with blank pages. The monuments provide the illustrations and what’s written on those monuments tell the stories of the fathers, mothers, sons and daughters laid to rest there.

Tom Miller at work with his computer, creating a
design for customer approval.

Although the monuments at Calvary Cemetery were made by many authors over the last 100 years, those created over the last 30 years were mostly made by Tom Miller, owner of Monuments by Miller. Current estimates indicate that 19 out of 20 monuments going into Calvary are his creation.

Tom comes by that business naturally. For one thing, his work is all over town. He is the most visible sculptor in the Mankato area, creator of the town’s largest, permanent showpieces – the Korean Soldier, the Indian Chief and the Buffalo at the intersection of Front Street and Main Street are all his creations.

He is also the son of the cemetery’s past full-time caretaker, Jerry Miller, and the brother of the present full-time caretaker, Terry Miller. So a mix of reliability, quality, reasonable pricing, sheer artistic talent, strong referral ties and a long-standing presence in the business have carved out a lion’s share of the Calvary monument trade.

Tom creating ice sculptures at the St Paul Winter
Carnival early in his career.

His pieces at Calvary vary in nature, size and grandeur. The Fallenstein Cross is notable for its size; the Haefner Angel is smaller but elegant. Tom is also the author of sectional centerpieces, like the Wings of Hope sculpture and the Resurrection Garden Cross.

Along with Tom’s standout pieces scattered throughout Calvary, there are the many stones that are more modest in size and scope – upright and flat monuments that aren’t landmarks in the cemetery.

The warm months are busy times for his business. While burials happen all year, spring and summer are catch-up times for those put off by the families who opt for more pleasant weather. That’s an option becoming more and more popular, especially with the upswing in cremations. Typically, Tom will have a big influx in orders before Memorial Day. With a late spring that means long hours in catching up.

“But they will all be done,” he says.

Although Tom is old school when it comes to keeping commitments, he is adept at using computer technology for design, especially typography. Matching letters and numbers for new work on existing stones is a constant task. There are times Tom is adding a “deceased” date on a stone that was originally set up years ago. As he demonstrates font matching on the computer, he points to a nearby desk that supports an expensive new printer for creating sandblasting stencils.

“Every job is different. Especially now, with all the new features available,” he said.

The industry has evolved far beyond just chisel and hammer tools. Etching photographic images onto stone with lasers has become very popular.

It’s even now possible to have a chip reader on a headstone that enables a visitor to use a smartphone to see a recorded message from the deceased.

Memorial Day 2022 approaching quickly

Tom Miller of Monuments by Miller engraves a marker at Calvary. A late Spring has the regional cemetery industry scrambling to be ready for Memorial Day 2022.

Calvary Cemetery’s biggest event of the year, Memorial Day, is just days away and the caretaker crew is scrambling to prepare, reeling from the delays of a late Spring.

“Things are moving fast. We just hope for good weather,” commented Terry Miller, Calvary Caretaker.

The special Memorial Day Mass will be held at 8:45 a.m. on Monday, May 30th. Father John Kunz of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church will be the celebrant.

“In the past, we’ve had anywhere from 100 to 700 people attending. It really depends on the weather,” said Terry.

While the Mass is said within Calvary Chapel, many of the visitors sit outside on lawn chairs and hear the service through the P.A. system.

Immediately following Mass, American Legion Post 11 will conduct a ceremony at the veterans’ memorial on the east side of the chapel.

Terry has some good advice for the event visitors:

  • Park on Goodyear Avenue in front the cemetery and walk in to avoid being blocked in the cemetery.
  • Bring lawn chairs in case you cannot get a seat inside the chapel.
  • Dress appropriately for the weather that morning.
  • Ground decorations are allowed to be placed on sites starting Monday, May 23rd but must be removed by Monday, June 6th. (To decorate year round, you must have a cemetery-approved pot stand in a concrete pad — certain areas only. Please check with staff.)
  • No glass containers are allowed — please anchor flowers well or the wind will take them.